Praying With Icons: St. George the Dragon Slayer

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes have been removed

According to legend, a dragon lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. To subdue his rage, the local people sacrificed their children to him. They were chosen by lot. At last it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom, when a Christian knight, Saint George, appeared on the scene. After praying to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, George wounded the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city. The monster followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” Rejecting a reward of gold, George called on the local people to be baptized.

The legend of the brave knight on a white horse who rescued a princess bears the imprint of the actual practice in many ancient cultures of sacrificing children to blood-thirsty deities. Christian missionaries revealed God as loving and merciful rather than an ominous tyrant who had to be appeased by killing.

This wonderful tale of a saint battling a dragon came centuries after the actual George had died a martyr’s death. The “dragon” George fought against was fear of the emperor. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, George had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured, and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and to have given courage to others who were already baptized.

Like Nicholas of Myra, Saint George is a deliverer of prisoners and protector of the poor. Perhaps because his name means “husbandman,” he is also the patron of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

The icons of Saint George battling the dragon are simple but powerful images of the struggle against fear and evil, symbolized by the dragon. The graceful white horse George rides represents the strength and courage God gives to those who bear witness. The thin cross-topped lance the saint holds is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in his hand — meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

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